The Dirt on New Biometric Methods

March 4, 2015

Some sensors catch on quicker than others. Fingerprint readers are still an iteration away from going wide.

By our count, fewer than half of recent smartphone flagships include a fingerprint sensor. This is despite the momentum of biometric-based mobile payment systems with the likes of Apple Pay and Samsung Pay relying on a touch-type fingerprint sensor for authorisation during financial transactions. It’s a swift feature addressing the mild inconvenience of PIN input.

The newly announced Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge include a touch sensor that improves on the swipe-type sensor found in the Galaxy S5. However, most other top smartphones unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2015 have no fingerprint reader at all. This includes HTC’s One M9, Sony’s Xperia M4 Aqua and Microsoft’s Lumia 640 family of devices.

Payment authentication has become a compelling tech endorsement for fingerprint sensors, but the addition to a device’s bill of materials, the early state of the components’ development and the limited number of suppliers has caused many phone makers to delay implementation. We expect that several promising new fingerprint sensor technologies — including several prototypes shown at Mobile World Congress — will spark adoption.

Qualcomm demonstrated its Snapdragon Sense ID 3D Fingerprint technology. Sense ID is based on ultrasonic waves, said to read through grease, lotions, water and dirt to improve accuracy, usability and security. Qualcomm also claims Snapdragon Sense ID can scan through glass, plastic and other materials, providing smartphone designers with greater flexibility for sensor placement. The technology came to Qualcomm through its acquisition of Ultra-Scan, a US company that develops biometric hardware and software. Qualcomm expects Sense ID to be used in devices including phones, cars, watches and game consoles.

Vkansee Technology is showcasing its optical fingerprint scanner, UTFiS, which the company says can read 2,000 pixels per inch — a jump from 550 pixel readers found in current sensors, and closer to fingerprint scanners found at some airports. Vkansee provided an alarming demonstration of how fingerprint impressions in moulds could be used to dupe sensors found in some current smartphones. Like Qualcomm, Vkansee also says its reader can be placed underneath glass, and that the near-infrared imaging method can read through water and grease.

Such new biometric components are challenging scanners from Synaptics and Apple’s Authentec unit. The greater variety and apparent security improvements coupled with the placement flexibility and support for real-world environments will drive biometric implementations in future generations of smart devices. Apple and Samsung are setting a trend, but this biometric boom should drive the feature across the industry.